DeVonta Smith scores on a 26-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jalen Hurts with 25 seconds remaining Saturday to lift the top-ranked Alabama football team to a 31-24 victory against No. 18 Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
November 12, 2017 1:00:15 AM
STARKVILLE -- Tolando Cleveland crouched over his helmet with a hand on his facemask, propping himself up on it, consumed in the feeling of what was lost.
What was lost was what looked like an imminent win over No. 1 Alabama.
For nearly the entirety of Saturday's game, No. 18 Mississippi State had every feasible advantage over the top-ranked Crimson Tide and seemed well on its way to its first victory over it since 2007. Then came the final 10 minutes.
A rally unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon in Alabama (10-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference, No. 2 College Football Playoff) lore doubled as the bitter end for MSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC, No. 16 CFP). The 31-24 loss cast an unfavorable shade on what was a proving point for MSU: it is ready to compete with the dominating force of today's college football.
MSU coach Dan Mullen is adamant: his program is no longer in the business of moral victories.
"These guys that are in that locker room expect to win this game: they don't expect it to be close, they expect to win it," Mullen said. "That's why they came to Mississippi State."
If it were, though, it wouldn't have to search far for them.
MSU showed off a controlling offense that did things to Alabama that few before it have accomplished. It all started with sheer opportunity it created for itself in the form of 38 minutes, 56 seconds in time of possession. It was by design as Alabama was missing four linebackers, all of whom play prominent roles in its rotation.
"Slow the game down a little bit, try to give them a hard time with some people out to make those calls on the defense, make all those checks, those kinds of things," MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
That being the case, the fate of the game was handed to an MSU offensive line trusted to create efficiency given MSU could not rely on explosive runs: Alabama entered the game best in the nation with just 17 runs of 10 or more yards allowed. The unit did not disappoint.
"I think we really just dominated the offensive line sometimes," Fitzgerald said.
Left tackle Martinas Rankin added, "I feel like anytime a team wins a game, it has a lot to do with the guys in the trenches. We prepared the right way, we came out and wanted to hit them in the face. That's what coaches preached all week: we have to be physical. From Monday to now, we knew what we had to do."
MSU ran for 172 yards on Alabama, a mark no Alabama opponent has matched since 2015. It cleared the way for two first-half rushing touchdowns for running back Aeris Williams; if it were him instead of Fitzgerald running in the touchdown in the third quarter, he would have become the first player to run for three touchdowns on Alabama since 2000. In simply scoring three on the ground against the Tide, MSU became the first to do that in the Nick Saban era.
The defensive showing before the final 10 minutes was just as impressive: through three quarters Alabama had 252 yards of offense, a far cry from the norm for a team averaging over 477 per game entering Saturday.
Yet, at the end, MSU is still searching. It still waits for its first win over Alabama in the Mullen era, still waits for the win that could thrust it back into the top 10 as it was three years ago.
"It's frustrating. I thought our guys played their tails off, I thought they fought hard for 60 minutes," Mullen said. "That's the No. 1 team in the country, they're the No. 1 team in the country for a reason.
"It's not easy to beat the No. 1 team in the country, but we get opportunities every year. We get to do it again next year."
Now the reality sets in.
MSU continues on needing to win both of its final regular season games -- at Arkansas and at home against Ole Miss -- on top of a bowl game to reach the 10-win plateau for the second time in the Mullen era. But first, it must cope with what it's lost.
"It's a true test of your character," Rankin said. "You lose a fight like this, you have to keep fighting and keep pushing."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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